One frenzied Saturday night, unable to land an impromptu table in the Village, we dashed into the Pearl Oyster Bar just as it was closing and begged chef Rebecca Charles to feed us anyway. But she'd just cut her hand, and begged off. That's how the Pearl spent its season on my "must-try" list before disappearing into a file of yellowing clips. Till four weeks ago. My sudden yearning for old-fashioned American regional food reminded me of Pearl's tiny counter, inspired by Swan's Oyster Depot in San Francisco and filtered through a Maine-seashore sensibility. Not everyone will feel comfortable in this pocket-hanky space on Cornelia Street, with just one table and its first-come, first-served, no-reservations ways.
I came late for lunch to avoid standing in line and sat down a few stools from the couple who own Home Restaurant next door. They pretended not to notice me. I ordered the mussels in a pool of mustard-spiked wine and cream. It was love at first slurp. "Isn't my clam chowder too thick?" my companion queried. (New Yorkers are all born critics.)
"Maybe," I agreed, sipping a spoonful of intense cream and clam, "but it's heaven." How could I have deprived myself so cruelly, I thought, getting a hit of sensational oyster brine undiluted by its crumb crust and deep-frying in the tartar-sauce-dabbed oyster roll. The day's special grouper on crusty ciabatta roll with more unabashedly lusty mayo was so good I had to force myself to cease and desist, since it was only four hours till dinner.
By 8:45 a few nights later, the first seating had begun to exit and we only had ten minutes' wait on the tippety metal love seat on the sidewalk before snagging three stools with a corner at the marble counter. There, a red-headed sprite with a gold star in her cheek was soon flipping cellophane-wrapped oyster crackers at us and pouring a fine Sancerre. The house's mythic steamers were already eighty-sixed, alas, but I didn't care -- I wanted the lobster roll, a small fortune in lovingly boiled flesh and a delicious excess of that fabulous sauce (brilliantly doctored Hellmann's) on a hot-dog roll, with thin ribbon fries (choice of ketchup or vinegar). Salt-crusted shrimp comes with carrot-and-celery-root rémoulade. So maybe the Caesar is a shade too wet; it's got anchovy you can see. The corn pudding is a tad dry, though perfect lobster, a pound and a half for just $25, is what really counts. And the grouper is better than the whole, slightly too-cooked sea bass. Garlicky aioli on a crouton sails like a flag on an elegant Cape Cod bouillabaisse -- one of my guests, returning the next night for an encore, asks for two croutons, please.
My chum spent childhood summers in Maine and has a firm grasp of New England seasoning. "It's all based on the Bloody Mary," she replies when I wonder aloud what makes Pearl's crab cakes so brown. "Tabasco to start," she says, pointing to three outsize bottles of that mythic pow on the back counter. "Onion powder. Celery salt. Exactly what you find on the shelf when you rent a summer cottage. A squirt bottle of lemon juice." Plus, chef Charles advises, toasted crumbs from the excellent Pugliese bread the house buys from Sullivan Street Bakery. Want perfect better-than-homey Maine desserts? Try bittersweet-chocolate mousse or the homemade butterscotch parfait with nuggets of praline (you can always stop at the dentist on the way home).
The Pearl Oyster Bar, named for co-owner Rebecca Charles's grandmother, is almost two years old, but it's been too small for its fans from the beginning. Having fed restaurateur Shelley Fireman at least twenty times and heard him confess he was stealing their menu for his new Sheepshead Bay concept, Charles is plotting to expand. "That Fireman," she says. "He even sent David Rockwell's people in to take photographs. And Larry Forgione was here last week. He's doing a seafood concept uptown. I guess I should be flattered." Of course, wherever Pearl goes, the oyster roll will always star. But Charles has visions of expanding the franchise. "I'm tired of cooking nothing but seafood," she confides. "I miss eating meat."
Pearl Oyster Bar, 18 Cornelia Street (691-8211). Lunch, Monday to Friday noon to 2:30 p.m. Dinner, Monday to Saturday 6 to 11 p.m. M.C., V.